Here at ClickZ, we have a mission statement: We help marketers do their jobs better. Well, here's a selfish little secret: A lot of those marketers would be doing their jobs better if they helped us do our jobs better.
You guessed it -- I'm talking PR professionals. It's been a couple of years since my last rant about the blunders and fumbles we endure from this particular marketing subset.
The rules of engagement have changed dramatically during that time. News cycles are no longer measured in days or hours, but in minutes, thanks to Web technology. Adoption of more recent innovations, particularly blogs and RSS feeds, and the wireless Internet accelerate the speed at which information is disseminated, reported, picked up, and re-reported.
Who's behind the movement of all that information has also changed very radically. News doesn't necessarily come from corporate PR gatekeepers, and reporting isn't necessarily confined to journalists.
It's scary how many PR "professionals" seem to carry on, blissfully unaware of the fact New Media means doing things in New Ways.
Your friendly ClickZ editors are on the receiving end of plenty of PR atrocities. Many occur because inexperienced, uninformed flacks are dispatched by marketing VPs and CEOs to represent their companies, services, and products to the likes of us: once ink-stained, now carpal-tunnel-plagued, members of the fourth estate.
So if you're a PR professional, or you pay one to represent you, here's how you can do your jobs better. That, in turn, enables us to do ours.
What's an Embargo?
Embargoes are a time-honored media tradition, and with good reason. On the PR side, they afford a company enough time to contact key media, thoroughly brief them on a news item or an announcement, set up interviews with executives, demo products, and give a reporter time to contact outside sources. In exchange, the media outlet consents not to publish the story until an agreed-upon date and time.
Are embargoes broken? Certainly (but never by us). When they are, the genie's not going back into that bottle.
If a publication breaks an embargo, PR must act swiftly and punitively against the outlet that broke it. Strike it from the list of media accorded priority access. But don't come down on any of the subsequent torrent of publications that immediately rush to get their story up on the embargoed topic. It's already out there. We've seen it on RSS feeds, gotten frantic IMs and email messages. PRs must discipline the perpetrator, not the other victims.
When they're not broken (which is most of the time), embargoed stories are great for everyone. We'll do a better job telling your story if we have more time and can allocate resources to cover it.
And if we don't have the resources when you decide to drop the bomb, too bad for you. I feel like I spent half this past summer on the phone with PRs who would cryptically hint about "a big announcement sometime next week."
"OK, fine," I'd reply. "I've got two reporters on vacation, and Google's about to IPO. We honor embargoes. Or, you can take your chances."
You can't embargo everything -- especially if it already happened. On Monday, October 4, my editorial team attended a high-profile advertising event here in New York. We were, of course, invited as media. Four days later, we received a press release recapping highlights of the evening. Above the headline stood the boldface legend: EMBARGOED UNTIL 9:00 AM, MONDAY, OCTOBER 11, 2004.
Next thing you know, you'll slap a post-Thanksgiving embargo on Halloween coverage.
Note to Redmond: We know sometimes it can't be helped. But we keep getting announcements from you guys at 6:00 p.m. EST that are embargoed until midnight. Thanks for the heads up and all, but please bear in mind though we're dedicated, we have personal lives, too.
Not All Bloggers Are "Real" Journalists
Much of the PR world seems to only now to be awakening to the fact there's something out there called a "blog." You should've known this long before Ana Marie Cox made The New York Times Magazine's cover or Dan Rather endured Memogate. It's your job to know.
Blogs have changed the way we do our job, and they should change the way you do yours.
One of the first collisions between the blogosphere and the news occurred in June 2003. A Wall Street Journal-ordained press gag order was broken by bloggers Denise Howell and David Hornik. Both posted interviews with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates at a WSJ-sponsored event that were off-limits to attending press. Because they're bloggers, not press.
Hey, I applaud their guts and initiative. But Howell and Hornik raised a big red flag that day. If I were still doing corporate communications, I would've started plotting a strategy for dealing with bloggers the day the story broke. Kryptonite learned the hard way to take bloggers seriously -- but only after the Bic pen story was picked up in the mainstream media.
There are plenty of lessons in this: Journalists increasingly rely on blogs for tips, research, and information. Journalists and bloggers often compete to break a story or further one. Bloggers (particularly those who aren't journalists in their day jobs) aren't necessarily bound by formal journalistic ethics concerning exclusives, embargoes, gag orders, and the like. Take a cue from PR pro Steve Rubel and think about this -- a lot.
How Exclusive Is the Exclusive?
If you shoot a lengthy pitch via email to your entire distribution list of 300 journalists (many at competing publications) that poses the question, "Who wants an exclusive on this story?" don't be surprised when no one bites.
Stealing and Lying
I spotted a press release on the wire last week. It caught my attention because "ClickZ" was in the headline. Not only was I unaware the company was planning an announcement that mentioned us, I was appalled to find the announcement reprinted a recent column in its entirety.
Where to begin?
I contacted the flack whose name was on the release and told her in addition to factual and spelling errors concerning ClickZ, a column reprint is a blatant copyright violation. The too-dumb-to-live response from the PR "professional"? "I failed to look" [at the copyright information on your site]. That's the kind of PR hotshot you want on your payroll -- one blissfully unaware of how media works on the most fundamental level.
She hastened to promise the release would not go out. Right. That's why I saw it on the wires in the first place, and that's why another copy came to me by email before I contacted her. The CEO of the company involved professed ignorance the release even existed.
He allowed an outside agency to release information about his company to the media with neither his knowledge nor approval? That's trust.
Actually, to us it appeared to be more than just negligence. It appeared to be an untruth. After all, Pamela Parker had already received an email from the CEO himself passing along the same information -- though in a different form -- before the press release hit the wire.
Lie or not, something like that shapes our perception of your company and your credibility. And though I won't publish the company's name here, nor the name of the PR firm, those names just may slip out next time I have a couple drinks with friends who work in interactive marketing -- or in the media.
PR may be a relatively small part of your marketing budget. But very big things come in small packages -- both good and bad.
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Rebecca was previously VP, U.S. operations of Econsultancy, an independent source of advice and insight on digital marketing and e-commerce. Earlier, she held executive marketing and communications positions at strategic e-services companies, including Siegel & Gale, and has worked in the same capacity for global entertainment and media companies, including Universal Television & Networks Group (formerly USA Networks International) and Bertelsmann's RTL Television. As a journalist, she's written on media for numerous publications, including "The New York Times" and "The Wall Street Journal." Rebecca spent five years as Variety's Berlin-based German/Eastern European bureau chief. Rebecca also taught at New York University's Center for Publishing, where she also served on the Electronic Publishing Advisory Group. Rebecca, author of "The Truth About Search Engine Optimization," was ClickZ's editor-in-chief for over seven years.
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